In Diyarbakir, in Turkey, the Kurds are gaining their autonomy step by step

The Kurdish capital of Turkey, which has two millions inhabitants, faces a perilous time but is also full of hope. Since the start of the 20th century, the Kurds have been split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but today this population without a state is at the heart of the reconstruction of the Middle East.

The Kurdish capital of Turkey, which has two millions inhabitants, faces a perilous time but is also full of hope. Since the start of the 20th century, the Kurds have been split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but today this population without a state is at the heart of the reconstruction of the Middle East.

The language of Diyarbakir is that of walls. It is a city that whispers its secrets to the ramparts”, whispers the journalist poet Seyhmus Diken when we asked him to describe his city. One has to climb the ramparts made of black volcanic stones to think about the “Kurdish question”. By getting up high one can observe the river Tiger and the plains of Mesopotamia in this area in the eastern corner of Turkey also known as Northern Kurdistan or Bakur in Kurdish. When observing the geopolitical earthquake of the last few years, the impacts are not only local but also national and international. Kurdistan has been split into four enclaves since the fall of the Ottoman Empire but is now coming out of the shadow of history, and one needs to realise that the future of the Middle-East is partly being shaped in unknown Diyarkabir.

For the Turkish government the Kurdish “capital” is principally the capital of the rebellious workers party of the Kurdistan (PKK), a political party that has always been classified as a terrorist group, by Ankara and the European Union. For Murad Akincilar : “This city represents all that has been badly managed since the creation of the Turkish Republic ; discrimination, nationalism, hostility towards all other Middle-East countries and many more crimes.”

Portrait of Atatürk in Diyarbakir © Alain Devalpo Portrait of Atatürk in Diyarbakir © Alain Devalpo


A Turk from Istanbul, working in Diyarbakir as the coordinator of Diyarbakir institute for political and social research (DISA), Murad Akincillar has his personal theory on this city and its ramparts build by the Romans. “Diyarkabir is the result of trying to build a homogeneous and uniform society that is not related to its past and is not related to today’s reality. It is a political and an historical failure.”

Because of it, insurrections have been frequent throughout the 20th century and this until the 1980s when Abdullah Öcalan created the PKK in the region's mountains. This is the 29th Kurdish insurrection, and the most violent. 40 000 killed according to the government; in reality many more. There is not one family that has had at least one member killed, jailed, in exile or unaccounted for. In this arid region where people had built their life, thousands of villages have been destroyed. After their inhabitants were forced to move to the nearby cities, Diyarbakir becomes a shelter. 250 000 were living in the city at the end of the 1980s, there are around 2 million now. The migration never stopped. Today, the city is now a refuge for Iraqis and Syrians that are running away from Islamic State (IS).

This war is suffocating Turkish Kurdistan. “Economy and war don’t go together well”, states Mahmut Sanli, president of the Middle East business association in Diyarbakir. “From the start of the Turkish republic, the political conflicts have been so acute that the local economy has not been able to properly develop.” The unemployment rate is twice the national average. The infrastructures are in disarray and electrical outages are very frequent. The city is tired but still standing and there is no resignation to be found in the maze of the narrow streets in the old town.

Children in the old town © Alain Devalpo Children in the old town © Alain Devalpo


On the contrary, fear and death are being kept at bay by what Murad Akingilar calls “the Kurdish optimism. It is a prudent optimism. The Kurdish have been very proactive when fighting the government with guns. They have been very proactive when defending Kobane. Now they are using the same optimistic drive for their political struggle though more pacifist than before.”

 “Since the mobilisation in the 1980s, Diyarbakir is the socio-political centre for the Kurdish.” The sharp increase in its population puts the city on the front row and families are politicised by the war. “The Kurdish movement is characterised by its social network. It is not just the idea of socialism or independence that drives the Kurdish. It is mainly the personal networks. Each militant will involve its whole family”, precise Cuma Ciçek. The social mobilisation leads to political victories. In 1999, the Kurdish movement won the election and started governing Diyarbakir. Election after election, more cities were won and around 100 cities are now governed by the BDP (the party for Peace and Democracy), the yellow, green and red party, colours of the Kurdish flag.

Through institutionalisation, the political arm of the Kurdish movement has achieved real sociological changes such as the co-mayor model. “One man and one woman are leading each town hall they are elected to”, explains Mrs Kisanak, co-mayor of Diyarkabir. “We are replicating this co model throughout the town hall services so that the presence of women is made very visible.” Because of those victories without the need for guns, the military strategy of the movement is shifting. On the 21st of March 2013, on Newroz day, the Kurdish equivalent of the new-year, the leader of the PKK, reports from its jail that dialogue with the Turkish government has started.

 “We want peace, but the Turks don’t want it”

In the process, an armed truce is declared unilaterally. The government recognises that there is a Kurdish problem and agrees to a dialogue with the “terrorists”. For the conservative party of AKP, for others political party, and even for the Kurdish movement which is not united, this decision is difficult to accept. Right away, the tension drops in Diyarbakir. However there are still extremist or paramilitary groups that continue to act with impunity. But it is not like before, people, young or old, are no longer scared to claim they are Kurdish.

From dialogue to peace process, there is still a long way to go. But now “the Kurdish question” is on the national agenda and agreements are being reached such as the modification of the constitution dating from the military regime of the 1980s. Necdet Ipekyuz is a doctor but also a member of the Foundation of human right in Turkey. He argues for a new constitutional framework that recognizes the plurality of identities.

Support for Kobane during a soccer match © Alain Devalpo Support for Kobane during a soccer match © Alain Devalpo


 “There is also a need to develop a new vocabulary to foster a peace culture”, says Necdet Ipekyuz. And this will probably start with a redesign of the official history taught in textbooks so that the collective memory is able to go beyond what is keeping it apart. “I think this will take a generation to happen”, adds Cuma Ciçek.

So far the dialogue has led to nothing tangible. The absence of a third party, independent and trusted by the protagonists, is a major stumbling block. The process of demobilisation and rehabilitation involves dozens of thousands of people. What is going to happen to the Kurdish fighters? What about the paramilitary groups working for the Turkish government? How to reverse the rhetoric of hatred in a region that is not use to dialogue?

 “We want peace because we know the price of war, but this is not the case for the Turks” one hears in the streets of Diyarbakir. Delil, a student, who takes any opportunity he can get to log on to Firatnews, a site in favour of the Kurdish movement, expresses his mistrust vis-à-vis the government in Ankara : “The only party that has acted for the peace is the PKK. Nothing has changed in governmental policy. They keep on setting up military bases and continue on the warpath.”

Öcalan and the Turkish government are not on the same wavelength. In the governmental camp, the dialogue is tempered by election results. On the other hand, the PKK leader, in jail since 1999, seems to have time and the capacity to overcome crises like the one that happened early October 2014. The capture of Kobane by IS and the lack of military reaction from the Turkish government, sent the population of Diyarbakir into the streets. Ocalan asks the demonstrators to go back to their homes to show his influence on the Kurdish Turks. In the process he expresses his will to maintain the dialogue as some governmental voices threatened to disrupt them. “He is no longer a political prisoner. He has become a politician who understands the intricacies of Middle-East politics,” says Murad Akincilar.

Families asking for news of close missing persons © Alain Devalpo Families asking for news of close missing persons © Alain Devalpo


Since then the dialogue has been more serene even if Ankara is refusing to give the Kurdish their autonomy. Because of it, no social and economic politic can be implemented to kick start a regional redevelopment. No peaceful political solution has yet to be proposed to the Kurds who have yet to all speak with the same voice. Because of this fragile dialogue Necdet Ipekyuz states that : “At this point the dialogue is informal. The process needs to be institutionalised. The fact that the dialogue can stop or restart depending on so few people makes it very instable.”

 “The political project turns to a confederacy”

If the progress at political level is hard to see, at a cultural and societal level, it is undeniable and is spreading to the whole of Turkey. “The number of women in politics, while limited, is on the increase under the support of the Women Kurdish Movement. Partisans will have to make room for them”, explain Mme Kisanak. At the opposite of the President Erdoğan who keeps on repeating that women are not equal to men.

The word “Kurdish” is no longer always equivalent to the word “terrorist”. A Kurdish press now exists. Kurdish institutes have been created in universities, and learning Kurdish language at school is being suggested. Publishing books in Kurdish no longer gets you sent to jail. The fourth political force in Turkey gathers Kurdish, progressive Turks and representatives of ethnic or social minorities like the LGBT movement. The “global war” seems relegated to the dark days of the past. “The Kurdish movement, and more particularly the women's movement, are helping the democratisation of Turkey”, states Murad Akincilar. This progress is rooted in a regional context that is in full reconstruction.

Music in the bar Payiz, Dag Kapi, Diyarbakir

Alain Devalpo


In 2003, the invasion of Iraq by the USA and the birth of an autonomous Kurdish Iraqi region around Erbil city was the first step for Cuma Ciçek. “The parameters of the Kurdish question have changed. The Kurdish question is now supra-national.” In 2011, the Syrian civil war led to the emancipation of the Rojava region (Western Kurdistan) from the Damas government and this was the second step. Finally, the arrival on the international scene of the IS jihadists has been upsetting the balance. The victory of the Kurdish troops in Kobane is a reminder to the western world that Kurds can have a real impact.

In this context, the idea of  a Great Kurdistan is back on the agenda though not necessarily as an independent country or a national state assures Murad Akincilar. “The PKK is moving away from the idea of wanting to create a state against another state. The Kurds in Turkey do not support the idea that their right to self-determination means a new notional state. Their Great Kurdistan is cultural, historical, so that it will allow the construction of a federation of communities in the region.” The rights claimed by the Kurdish movement are claimed in the name of all the people in the area and the political project is moving towards a confederation of communities based on “multi-cultural democracy”.

A hundred years of separation have created a wide cultural, political and economic gap which promotes rivalry between the “four Kurdistans”. The relations between the leaders are difficult, especially between the Turkish and Syrians on one side and the Iraqis on the other side. In the Middle East map, the Kurds are used by neighbouring countries and the main world states. Regardless, the civil societies are busy building bridges over and above those divergences. The student Delil will be hosting youngsters from the four regions during the first 2015 semester. The business man Mahmut Sanli is also organising an economic forum that will welcome businessmen from across the four regions.

Poster in Diyarbakir © Alain Devalpo Poster in Diyarbakir © Alain Devalpo


Women in the front row, associative movements, social conquests, political dialogues, armed ramparts ready facing the Islamic extremist, the dimension of the “Kurdish cause” has changed. No one is expecting the future to be straightforward. The peace process has many enemies. But in Diyarbakir, the observers share similar thoughts to Cuma Ciçek. “The main dynamic is the socio-political and cultural transformation at the heart of the Kurdish society. It will ground the Kurdish movements, and this despite their differences.” It is this civil society that took to the streets on the 29th of October 2014 to salute the Iraqi Peshmergars soldiers crossing the Turkish Kurdistan on their way to Kobane in Syria. A union supported by American air strikes that freed up the city from IS troops. And Cuma Ciçek concludes : “This social movement is the dynamic that will define the future”.

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